Economic Inequality Reduces Sense of Control and Increases the Acceptability of Self-Interested Unethical Behavior

Christopher To*, Dylan Wiwad, Maryam Kouchaki

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Societies worldwide are witnessing higher levels of economic inequality. While prior work has examined ethical judgments toward inequality itself (e.g., “is inequality unethical?”), less is known about how inequality shapes judgments of unethical behavior (e.g., “is unethical behavior more acceptable?”). In two correlational studies, we find that higher objective (Study 1; n= 127,953) and subjective (Study 2; n= 806) inequality is associated with greater acceptability of self-interested unethical behavior. In Studies 3a–6b (total N = 4,851; preregistered), we manipulated perceived inequality and test several mediating pathways. Results point toward the importance of sense of control as a mechanism: Under conditions of high inequality, individuals report a lower sense of control, which increases the acceptability of self-interested unethical behaviors. As a supplement, we also explore associations regarding why high inequality reduces sense of control (reduced perceptions of social mobility) and why sense of control is associated with greater acceptability of unethical behavior (greater situational attributions). Overall, our results suggest inequality changes ethical standards by reducing one’s sense of control, providing evidence for another pathway through which inequality harms societies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2747-2774
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2023


  • economic inequality
  • ethical judgments
  • sense of control

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • General Psychology


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